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The Long Road to Paddling the L.A. River

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Paddle the L.A. River pilot program, 2011 by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District used under a Creative Commons license.
FoLAR logo-thumb-85x104-30891

Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) is a non-profit organization founded in 1986 to protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat through inclusive planning, education and wise stewardship. This weekly column will support our efforts toward a swimmable, fishable, boatable Los Angeles River.

No doubt you've heard the news -- tickets for kayak trips down the Los Angeles River went on sale this week. Two different groups will be making river runs in the San Fernando Valley: Paddle the L.A. River on Tuesdays through Saturdays, and L.A. River Expeditions on Sunday and Monday. From July 21 through September 29, kayakers will be on the river EVERY DAY.

Last summer I was invited to be the guest speaker for the pilot Paddle runs. To say I was excited would be an understatement. Do you remember how you felt the night before an elementary-school field trip? I was that 10-year-old who had trouble falling asleep. I kept imagining what that would feel like to be in a boat on the L.A. River.

With nine years under my belt at Friends of the Los Angeles River, I've seen the river's potential. I've taken people on river walks. I've talked about the plans to revitalize the river. And I've advocated for recreational opportunities on the river as it is now. Imagine a swimmable, fishable, boatable Los Angeles River -- I didn't have to imagine any longer.

At 7 a.m. the city is still quiet as we waited at the check-in area. I confessed to other eager adventurers that I'd only been in a canoe a few times and in a kayak once. "I've never been in a boat and I'm nervous," a young woman responded, and we chuckled as we walked down to the river and readied ourselves. One by one we got in and paddled upstream to the starting point. We formed a circle, facing one another as our guides explained this historic significance of this program.

In 1994, an episode of "Visiting...With Huell Howser" focusing on the L.A. River had Huell and then FoLAR Board Member Dennis Schur, canoeing this very section of the river. Back then there were fewer eyes on the river, and even fewer organizations working on revitalization projects. The river was still fenced off, and people like Joe Linton, author of "Down By the Los Angeles River," recognized the importance of fostering connections to the River and started finding places where he could lead walks.

It was the adoption of the Los Angeles County River Master Plan in 1996 (and subsequently the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan in 2007) that led the way to most of the parks, bike paths, and other improvements on the river banks that we enjoy today.

Enrique Zaldivar of City of LA Bureau of Sanitation and Louis Sahagun of LA Times. Paddle the L.A. River Press Conference, 2011 | Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District used under a Creative Commons license
Enrique Zaldivar of City of LA Bureau of Sanitation and Louis Sahagun of LA Times. Paddle the L.A. River Press Conference, 2011 | Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District used under a Creative Commons license

The 2010 ruling that the Los Angeles River is a traditional navigable waterway was literally a watershed moment for the river. George Wolfe's three-day L.A. River Expedition in 2008 was certainly instrumental, providing tangible proof for groups like FoLAR, the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, and the Natural Resources Defense Council to work behind the scenes to push for this decision. In January 2011, FoLAR worked with George, the UCLA Environmental Law Center, The Environmental Law Foundation and the River Project to release "Recommendations for Near-Term Recreational Access and Use of the Los Angeles River":

Our overall recommendation for the long term is a policy of open public access and use of the entire Los Angeles River, compatible with essential safety considerations. In the near term, the policy should recognize current realities and focus on those sections of the River which are already used extensively: the Sepulveda Basin, the Glendale Narrows/Elysian Valley, and the River estuary at Long Beach. We urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County's Flood Control District, and the City of Long Beach to adopt a clear, comprehensive, uniform set of policies for recreational access and use of these River sections.

After FoLAR presented these recommendations to the Ad Hoc Committee on the Los Angeles River, Councilmember Ed Reyes, the Committee's chair, called for a motion to support recreational use zones on the Los Angeles River. If all goes well, we may even see kayaking or even fishing take place in the Glendale Narrows as soon as next year.

But even now, going down into the river channel is forbidden. Permitting is an on-going issue and there is no one-stop permitting process. The Paddle program is running in the Sepulveda Basin not only because it IS beautiful, but also because that property is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- they are the ones that issue the permits. Currently groups like FoLAR and Heal the Bay that conduct cleanup activities must obtain permits from several different entities, such as the County and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Last year the Department of Fish and Game required a Streambed Alteration Agreement for our Great Los Angeles River CleanUp. What that means is that we must now hire a biologist to survey our sites, looking for nesting birds and other sensitive species that could be affected. This is a good thing: people and agencies are starting to see the river AS A RIVER and not just a flood control channel.

Paddle the L.A. River, 2011 | Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District used under a Creative Commons license
Paddle the L.A. River, 2011 | Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District used under a Creative Commons license


Once we began paddling down the river, there were a few times when our guides had to push us along narrow, rocky sections, or get out of the boats and skim through the water. Egrets seemed to wait for us downstream while great blue herons were more shy, flying away as we approached. But it was the green herons that impressed me the most -- I'd never seen so many at one time. We passed by anglers and a man had set up a chair and cooler on a peaceful section.

"I never knew the river looked like this," another man remarked.

"I just returned from Costa Rica and I feel like I'm there again," one woman shared. The heart of our urban landscape -- the river that most people think of as a concrete channel -- was compared to Costa Rica. The perfect destination for a stay-cation!

This summer over 2,000 people will have the opportunity to experience the Los Angeles River via boat. The Paddle program will include youth groups and plans for special runs for disabled individuals are in the works. And those of you who were fortunate to purchase your tickets on-line -- prepare to have your perception of the Los Angeles River be forever changed.

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